Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: read an extract

29 August 2019

In Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, Saidiya Hartman resurrects the forgotten histories of black women around the turn of the century and weaves an intricate and intimate account of their lives.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, black women in the US were carving out new ways of living. The first generations born after emancipation, their struggle was to live as if they really were free. Their defeats were bitter, but their triumphs became the blueprint for a world that was waiting to be born.

These women refused to labour like slaves or to accept degrading conditions of work. Wrestling with the question of freedom, they invented forms of love and solidarity outside convention and law. These were the pioneers of free love, common-law and transient marriages, queer identities, and single motherhood – all deemed scandalous, even pathological, at the dawn of the twentieth century, though they set the pattern for the world to come.

Read an extract below.

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saidiya hartman


An Intimate History of Slavery and Freedom

Yet despite the not-quite-polished picture the black, but comely, small-town girl presented, Mattie was determined to be more than nothing

Image of woman from early 20th Century

It was still too early for the whores, sissies, and toughs who plied their trade at the docks. Families gathered awaiting daughters and brothers and cousins; thugs and gangsters lurked at the outskirts of the crowd on the lookout for naive young women in search of direction or in need of help with a heavy piece of luggage. When Mattie Nelson arrived in New York City, she was barely a woman at fifteen. She was a tall, thin, dark-skinned girl, the kind only a father would have ever described as lovely, and the kind white people labeled a Negress to make apparent their contempt and scorn. It would be a decade before the thick hair tamed in braids and pinned in a bun on the top of her head, prominent cheekbones, almond- shaped eyes, and wide full lips would be compared to the beauty of an African mask. Even when dressed in her Sunday best, Mattie was decidedly unsophisticated. Yet despite the not- quite- polished picture the black, but comely, small- town girl presented, Mattie was determined to be more than nothing.

Image of a girl washing linen


She too would fall prey to the pleasures and dangers of the city while trying to make a feast of its meagre opportunities


It was hard for Mattie to make a distinction between the city and freedom itself. Like those provincials and fools whom Paul Laurence Dunbar derided in The Sport of the Gods as intoxicated by “the subtle and insidious wine” of the streets, who translated the Bowery into romance, made Broadway into lyric, and Central Park into a pastoral, and thereby failed to read the city as it really was, or apprehend it in a mode commensurate with its dangers, or properly adjust to its rhythms and demands, Mattie, looking past the cold facts and the risks, mistook the city for a place where she might thrive. “The real fever of love” would take hold of her, and the streets and the dance halls did become her best friends. All the sentimental causes for this rush and flight— the freedom to move, the want of liberty, the hunger for more and better, and the need of breathing room— explained her presence in New York. She too would fall prey to the pleasures and dangers of the city while trying to make a feast of its meagre opportunities.

None of the factories, shops, or offices would hire colored girls, especially girls as dark as Mattie. Housework and laundry were her only options. It is hard to say whether it was the disappointment at the lack of opportunity or the assault of the coldest winter she had ever experienced that landed her in bed, sick for more than a month, only a few weeks after she had arrived. When Mattie recovered her strength, she found a position as a domestic at a boarding house with twenty-three rooms where she was the sole maid. Washing, cleaning rooms, making beds, and trudging up and down the five flights of stairs in the boarding house wore her out. She hated the drudgery and boredom. But her mother said if she wasn’t going to school, she had to work. Most nights, she fell into bed exhausted, too tired to think about going to the moving pictures or the dance hall. When she wasn’t tired, she was lonely. The evenings were long and dull and not at all as she had imagined New York. After five weeks she quit the boarding house and found a new job at a Chinese laundry in Bayonne, New Jersey, which was different, but no better.

The days were still long and exhausting, but now spent doubled over, pressing clothes. Few white girls were willing to work for the Chinese. The sexual panic about the dangers of Chinese men reached a new height after the body of a young white woman was found in the trunk of a Chinatown bachelor. The daily papers fed the hysteria and fueled the idea of the yellow peril by regularly reporting stories of unsuspecting girls lured into opium dens and turned into drug- addled mistresses, or seduced by lonely bachelors at taxidance halls, or murdered by their lovers. The queer arrangements of Chinatown, the all-male households, were the result of immigration statutes that restricted the entry of Chinese women, and, as a consequence, the brothel or another man’s embrace were the most likely opportunities for intimacy, unless one looked for love across the color line. For Mattie, the Chinese laundry was just another job. Unlike black washerwomen who resented the washee washee men because they competed for the same clients, Mattie didn’t care. The job was just a way station until something better became available.

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